Found in Translation

Here’s how this year’s Pulitzer for editorial cartooning reached the world.

By Tracy Seipel and Tina Vossugh
25 OCT 2018

Two years ago in Connecticut, Mohammed Kadalah was working on his dissertation—on literature in Syrian prisons—and volunteering to help fellow refugees. That volunteer work attracted an unusual request: Could he assist a pair of freelance journalists as an interpreter to chronicle the struggles of two Syrian refugee families who had landed in the United States to start anew? Of course, he told them. 

“A lot of people helped me,’’ Kadalah says of his own U.S. odyssey—which has since led him to Santa Clara, where he is a lecturer of Arabic. “Helping them was a joy for me.’’

The pair of Syrian families, headed by two brothers, had first fled their home in Homs—Kadalah’s home as well—for Jordan in 2012. They hoped to return. But years passed; and they could not stay in Jordan permanently, so they applied to the United Nations seeking refugee status in any country that would accept them. At the time, the United States opened its arms to the families, who arrived in New York City on Nov. 8, 2016—election day. 

A comic strip for the New York Times

The two journalists were not a typical team: Jake Halpern is a writer, Michael Sloan an illustrator. They wanted to craft a “nonfiction graphic novel,” as Halpern describes it, to be published in serial form in the opinion pages of the New York Times. Kadalah served as interpreter, with Halpern recording conversations and then crafting a script—which he then sent to Kadalah for review.

“Mohammed was absolutely invaluable in making human connections with these families,’’ Halpern says. “He was the bridge between us.’’

Readers were introduced to the families in January 2017 when the series, “Welcome to the New World,” launched, with stories slated to run throughout the year. Just days after the first installment, President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry for 90 days into the United States by citizens from eight countries, including Syria.

Burgeoning anti-immigrant rhetoric heightened the two families’ fears. More dismaying, not long after one family moved to a rental home, an anonymous caller phoned, mentioned their street address, and threatened to kill them if they did not leave the country within 24 hours. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in. The children had just gotten settled at school; the father had landed a restaurant job. But they were advised to move to another town.

“When they got the threat call, I went to their house and we sat with them, we saw them crying and we comforted them,’’ Kadalah recounts. Then, he and others helped the family move temporarily to a hotel until another sponsor could help the family find another home to live in. There were false starts. Then a man from Vietnam who had fled his home country for the United States invited the family to move into a house he owned.

The graphic novel captures these and other poignant moments. There is the self-conscious daughter worrying about wearing a hijab to school. The families’ search for a mosque where they can pray—finding it in a strip mall. The chronic back pain one brother still suffers after torture in a Syrian prison. And a sense of pride one of the families feels after starting a local Arab food catering business.

“Everything you read in the series, it really happened,’’ Kadalah says.

Seeking Asylum

As a student in Syria, Mohammed Kadalah studied English and earned a master’s degree in teaching English as a foreign language. That helped when he applied to the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright Program, which led to a teaching assistant position at a small New York college in August 2011, where he expected to stay for the next year. That was also five months after a civil war erupted in Syria. Given how the Arab Spring had changed regimes elsewhere, Kadalah hoped things might be over by springtime.

Instead, by March 2012, the Syrian government shut down internet and mobile phone access to opposition-held areas; the only way Kadalah could reach family was via Facebook with friends in other areas of Syria who would contact his relatives for him. He also knew that if he returned home he would face mandatory military service in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces—which are estimated to have killed 425,000 Syrians since the war started.

“They would arrest me at the airport and I would be drafted to go to the military, where you have to kill innocent people,” Kadalah says. “Or they will kill you if you don’t kill innocent people.”

Kadalah applied for temporary protected status in the United States and later received asylum. The 32-year-old lecturer now uses the graphic novel in a course he teaches on Arab culture and identity. Other colleges and schools have adopted it as well. And Kadalah has done additional translation work with Halpern and Sloan for a planned book project on the two families, telling their stories at greater length. Kadalah hopes this will help broaden people’s understanding about the plight of refugees.

Reflecting on the shared experience of millions who have had to leave their homelands, he says, “The worst feeling is that you cannot go back to your country for a long time.”

It’s not only the place one misses. Kadalah has not seen his parents and seven siblings—all but two of whom later fled Syria for Lebanon—since he arrived in the United States seven years ago.


TRACY SEIPEL is an award-winning journalist, Bay Area native, and associate director of storytelling at SCU. TINA VOSSUGH has been an assignment editor at CNN and is now based in the Bay Area.